Interview: Surf Photographer Ryan Struck
“Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me … on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened to the sea.” — Jacques Yves Cousteau
Ryan Struck is a surf photographer who recently made Asbury Park, NJ, his home base. With a budding creative community of artists, musicians, skaters, surfers, photographers, poets and entrepreneurs, as well as some fun beach breaks, it seems Ryan made the best choice of locations in New Jersey.
Possessing a true love of the ocean and his craft, Ryan’s work is also captivating and striking. I recently reached out to Ryan, asking him a few questions about his work.
Zappo: When and where did you start surfing? What initially drew you to the act of riding waves and what do you love about it?
Struck: I started surfing when I was 18 or 19 years old. Somewhere in the vicinity of Deal, New Jersey. I definitely didn’t realize what I was getting into and my buddy Dan let me tag along no matter how kooky I was (still am). What initially drew me to the waves was my love of the ocean. I grew up a fishing addict, graduating from large mouth bass to stripers. I fished obsessively, not catching regularly, but enough to keep me hooked. Waves are just naturally beautiful, everyone can appreciate a pretty rolling wave whether they surf or not. Recently I’ve been more into body surfing. Yep that shit is so trendy now, but for me, I have more fun. When I’m on a board trying to get waves, I’m so focused on “getting a good one” that it really starts to hamper the fun factor. While swimming in the surf with just fins you are forced to slow down, take what you can and enjoy each ride. You aren’t often making waves, but there’s just something way more organic about using your body for wave sliding.
Zappo: Did surfing follow photography for you or where you behind the lens before you were in the water?
Struck: I was into photography before I started shooting surfing, but I saw it more as a small interest. My understanding of photography after surfing has changed dramatically. I credit surfing with helping me to really become hooked on photography. Much as in chasing Largemouth or Stripers, surf photography stole my attention and allowed me my first muse: the ocean. Once I got into the water with a surfboard and saw how well everyone was surfing, I would just sit and stare. I would see these moments in conjunction with the setting sun, cold fall water and hollow barrels. I wanted nothing more than to photograph what I saw.
Zappo: Photography is an art form that has always captivated me. What drives you in your pursuit of capturing an amazing photograph, and what would you say are some of the key elements to one such photograph?
Struck: I guess I still have that “I gotta get a good one” mentality which I thought I left behind with foam boards. You can never really be happy with your work as a photographer. We’re critical creatures and are pushing ourselves to top our last shoot, book or trip. That being said, composition is probably the biggest factor in creating an image. The very first instant a photograph is seen, the viewer is intrigued or not via how you’ve framed your subject. All the fancy camera gear in the world and all the lights and gadgets you have won’t fix an uninteresting composition.
Zappo: What type of formal (if any) training in photography do you have? What do you think the pros and cons of a formal education may be?
Struck: I took Photography 1 and 2 at Brookdale. I loved Photo 101, my teacher was awesome and let us be creative. When I took Photo 102 the professor was rigid and his assignments were boring. I understand now why he was teaching us to photograph 3 white eggs on a white background; the lesson being proper exposure. The pitfall to teaching a photographer to be technically “right” is that creativity may suffer. I need hands-on learning, I need to see it for myself, and I need my lessons to just click. Often these teachings occur while in the act of photography itself. There’s nothing more rewarding than a ton of bricks falling on you while you are in the midst of trying to figure something out, especially when it has to do with your camera and the way you are trying to express your ideas. The only lesson I got an A on in Photo102 was the “self-portrait” assignment and I wound up with a C for the semester.
My experience in education has always been different, it’s my opinion that formal training cannot teach you to be creative. It can teach you history, you can strive to pass the class and you may get a degree in photography but that doesn’t entitle you to call yourself a photographer. Being a photographer for me is more about an inner peace of sorts. In school they can’t teach you how to problem solve when all your gear is not working, or when you drop and break your camera while on assignment. My friend Kyo Morishima has said that shooting weddings teaches you everything you need to know about photography in one day because you have to get the shots, you have to photograph your bride and groom no matter what. And he’s right, my best education is to just do it.
Zappo: Being a surf photographer seems like a glamorous job to many, certainly exciting. What are the realities of a life chasing perfect waves to capture that ultimate moment?
Struck: Surf photography is one of the most beautiful aspects of photography that’s for sure. There’s so much more to it than just traveling and shooting waves. Everybody tells me I’m so lucky, I’ve got the best job and they do in fact think surf photographers live a rockstar lifestyle. Well the truth is that I make basically 0% of my living from surf photography. I’ve sold a few images here and there, most of them outside of the surf industry. I’ve slept on floors, been on super long plane flights, spent time with cranky surfers and dealt with sponsors who don’t value your work. Last year I quit a full time staff photographer job, to travel and shoot, only to return home broke with nowhere to live. Surf photography isn’t merit based, editorially and advertorial speaking. If you have shots of professional surfers than you’re getting run, if not, then you aren’t. Shots of your friends have a tougher time finding page space. I’m remembering that I started shooting surf for the pure visual experience, and I’m getting back to that, however, I did get caught up a bit in wanting my photos to run in the mags. I’ve realized that surfing is a very beautiful sport, the photos are pretty and it’s a very safe thing to shoot from a visual standpoint. So the realities are that camera gear and plane tickets are very expensive and you have to really love to shoot surf. You may come back home without much to show for your efforts except a bunch of pretty photos. Well, that’s not so bad.
Zappo: Where are some of your favorite destinations you have traveled to on work assignments and who are some of your favorite surfers to shoot?
Struck: I would have to say Tahiti has been my favorite place so far. It’s the most visually arresting place I have ever seen and even after you put the camera down you just can’t stop staring. The mountains, the clear cobalt waters and the friendly people. Tahiti gives you more of a feeling than any place I’ve been to yet.
Zappo: Where are you hoping to go to in the future?
Struck: I want to go everywhere and photograph everything. I know that’s a broad statement, but it’s true! Recently I’ve been photographing food and not just with my iPhone. My camera is a gateway to my curiosity and I’m so hungry to explore the world around me as well as abroad. I want to shoot more portraits and more people.
Zappo: Now that fall is here and winter will soon follow, do you hang around in NJ to catch the winter action or do you run off to some exotic locations to escape the brutal winters?
Struck: Last year I was on the North Shore of Oahu for 6 weeks, that was hectic. This year I’d love to stick out the brutal cold. The foul weather is easy to embrace when there’s good waves. When was that last good winter run we had 2010 maybe? That was awesome, I feel like I was swimming once a week. Our fall hasn’t been so hot, but I’m hoping the Atlantic wakes up a bit.
Zappo: What is the greatest reward you receive from a life based around shooting waves and surfers?
Struck: There’s two great rewards in shooting surfing from the water. The first being that you are recording moments of your friends experiencing pure joy. When your buddy passes by the lens, encircled in the lip, everything goes quiet. It’s kind of a photographer’s zen moment. The second reward is just being part of the ocean for awhile, feeling the tide’s push and pull.
Zappo: Any last words of wisdom or advice to up and coming photographers?
Struck: Follow your heart and shoot what you love. If you want to be a photographer you have to sacrifice a lot. It’s a full time job and will take pretty much all of your time. If I’m not color correcting on the computer, answering emails, culling a shoot, meeting with a client, researching, marketing, actually shooting, assisting other photographers, second shooting… then I’m thinking about photography. I’m picturing the next project I want to work on, or the next photograph I want to make. Seek advice but also take it with a grain of salt, because ultimately, you must love what you do and the only way you can do that is to be true to yourself.